Baylor students were dedicated musicians, teachers recall

07/31/2014 8:01 PM

07/31/2014 11:19 PM

Originally, Jake Hale was the only Baylor University student clarinetist who was going to Baton Rouge, La., this week for the International Clarinet Association’s Clarinet Fest.

Hale, a graduate of Boswell High School in Fort Worth and a senior music major at Baylor, was competing at the festival and planned to drive himself in his pickup.

But about a month ago, clarinet professor Jun Qian asked other student clarinetists if they could pinch hit in a performance at the festival because a scheduled clarinet choir from Taiwan had canceled, music school Dean Will May said this week.

Qian and his students met Monday on the Waco campus for a final rehearsal.

Sixteen players set off from Waco in university-supplied vans. Hale, 21, decided he would drive his pickup as planned. Three clarinet-playing friends joined him — recent graduate Laura Onwudinanti, 21, of Grand Prairie, junior John “Jack” Stewart, 19, of Dallas, and incoming freshman Megan Ritzi, 18, of Fort Worth.

Tuesday morning, the pickup was about 40 minutes out of Waco on Texas 7 when Hale lost control. The four-door 2003 Dodge Ram flipped on its side and slammed into a tree, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

When DPS troopers arrived at 9:30 a.m., Onwudinanti and Stewart were dead.

Hale and Ritzi were transported to Baylor Scott & White hospital in Temple, the only Level 1 trauma center in Central Texas.

“The two kids that were killed were bound together by the clarinet,” May said. “We will miss them both a great deal.”

Hale was released from the hospital Thursday afternoon, a hospital spokesman said.

Ritzi remained in critical condition Thursday. One foot has been amputated and several surgeries will be required, according to social media messages.

After the wreck, Hale was lucid enough to ask someone to call his mom, said Eric Wilson, Baylor’s director of bands.

Hale’s mother then called Qian, Qian called Wilson and they called off Baylor’s participation in the festival, Wilson said.

Onwudinanti, a May graduate with a degree in music education, had been accepted at the University of Michigan for graduate school, one of the top music schools in the country, Wilson said.

“She had a zest for life that was unmatched. She had incredible spunk and charisma. She was never without a smile or a laugh — she was the life of the party,” Wilson said. “She could change the social climate as soon as you saw her.”

Stewart’s personality was different.

“Jack was much more introspective, but he had a very sly sense of humor and could crack people up as Laura did, but he was very precise and well-timed,” Wilson said.

He recalled that after concerts Stewart sent him a lengthy emails about the performance.

“I will treasure those messages even more,” Wilson said.

Ritzi was already known to the Baylor music faculty because of her participation in high school summer music camps. After one camp, she emailed Wilson a research paper she had written on the impact of music.

“It was incredibly well-written and researched,” he recalled. “I know that she’ll use that same determination in her recovery. That’s my hope and prayer for her.”

Hale and Ritzi attended Boswell High School in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district.

Dimas Delgado, assistant director of bands at Boswell, said Ritzi participated in symphonic band, jazz band and marching band.

Friends are trying to raise $50,000 to help with medical expenses through a gofundme online fundraiser #Meganaid, Delgado said.

According to the donation website, her injuries “will require years of rehabilitation and a prosthesis.”

“Megan displayed a passion for playing that I have rarely seen in my 15 years of teaching. Her warm and sweet personality came through in her playing,” Delgado said in an email. “Her dream is to study music at Baylor and one day be a professional clarinetist.”

Hale, a 2011 graduate of Boswell, was a member of the symphonic band and marching band. He performed with the Fort Worth and Dallas youth orchestras, and performed in last year’s Clarinet Fest conference in Assisi, Italy, Boswell band director David Kirkley said.

“Jake is the hardest-working and highest-achieving student musician who has ever worn a uniform in the Boswell band program,” Kirkley wrote in an email. Hale won All State honors three times, he said.

Baylor will schedule a memorial service for Onwudinanti and Stewart in the fall when students are back on campus, Wilson said.

The music school is collecting ideas on the best ways to honor the two in the future, he said.

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